This walk, around the parkland of Elvaston Castle, is one of my occasional excursions from some of Derbyshire’s grand houses.
Unfortunately it could almost be described as from one of Maxwell Craven’s ‘Lost Houses’. Financial constraints on its present owners, Derbyshire County Council, make it impossible to fund the necessary £6.1 million needed to restore the building’s fabric; something that has put it very firmly on the list of ‘Buildings at Risk’ register. As a result of the house being unsafe, it means that it has been closed to the public since 2008, but the 200 acres of parkland around which this walk goes, are still freely accessible. There is also a programme of events in the park throughout the year, ranging from an Easter egg trail, to a night time guided nature walk – for further details check www.derbyshire.gov.uk/countryside events.
Until Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the estate was owned by Shelford Priory, after which it was sold in 1538, to Sir Michael Stanhope of Rampton, Notts. Following his death in 1611, the whole estate, including Elvaston, was inherited by his second son, also called Michael. He became High Sheriff of Derbyshire and died in 1638, but not before he built the Elizabethan-styled house at Elvaston on the outskirts of Derby in 1633.
With little change, Elvaston passed steadily through generations of Stanhopes until the 19th century. This was when Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Harrington employed the architect James Wyatt to extend and re-develop the castle in the then popular Gothic Revival style. During this time a new wing and the great hall were added. Further modifications on the Elizabethan-styled south front were carried out in 1836 by the architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, leaving the building very much as we see it today.
Vacated by its original owners, Elvaston Castle became a teacher training college until 1950, after which it remained mostly empty, slowly declining through intervening decades right through to the present time.
Elvaston Castle Gardens
Probably still the only truly cared for section of the estate, the gardens were laid out in 1830 for Charles, 4th Earl of Harrington by the relatively unknown gardener, William Barron. The earl had caused something of a scandal by marrying the actress Maria Foote who was seventeen years his junior. Very much a love-match, the couple kept the gardens for their private retreat while Barron spent the next twenty years building their now Grade 2 listed Gothic paradise.
Following the 4th Earl’s death in 1851, his brother Leicester Stanhope became the 5th Earl. It was he who opened the gardens to the public for the first time.
Along with the castle and its gardens, the estate covers some 200 acres of parkland, including several cottages and gate houses, along with an ice house plus a boat house. Ideally the property could be owned by the National Trust, but by confining their interest to acting in as a Consultancy Body, even they baulk at the thought of funding the £6.1 million required to restore the fabric of Elvaston Castle.
Elavaston Country Park
In 1969 following the Countryside Act the previous year, the estate including the castle was sold to Derbyshire County Council by the 11th Earl of Harrington. The council opened the estate to the public in 1970 as a Country Park under the terms of the Act. Since then it was used for country fairs and other major events, but latterly lack of funding has meant that even such things have been abandoned. Nevertheless the park is popular with up to 350,000 visitors a year, offering a wide range of activities alongside self-guided walks and cycle rides, or just for a day out in the popular children’s play park. .
Threatened with closure due to lack of funding, the council would like to remove its immediate financial liabilities amounting to around £500,000 a year simply to keep it open. Since closure of the main building to the public in 1990 when it was deemed unsafe, the castle and estate have attracted the interest of golf club developers, but this could well restrict the sort of access currently enjoyed by the public at large.
The Walk :
From the car park off the Borrowash/Elvaston road, follow the woodland track to the left of the children’s play park. Within sight of the lake, turn right.
The huge mound of white rocks, an imaginative adventure playground, is made of tufa (naturally reconstituted Derbyshire limestone). The rock was used extensively throughout the park to decorate William Barron’s garden lay-out.
Cross the bridge over a narrow neck of the lake and make your way up to the courtyard at the back of the castle.
Bear left from the courtyard and then right into the ornamental gardens.
Work your way up to the lodge and boundary wall.
Join the tree-lined formal drive for about 50 yards and then angle left away from it and on to a path heading towards modern houses in Thulston.
Bear right past the newish housing estate and on to a road passing the Harrington Arms.
Turn left to join the Borrowash road for a few yards.
Cross the main road and bear right on to a side road, bearing right again where it forks. This is Ambaston Lane, follow it for about a mile into Ambaston village. n.b. although this is a minor side road, it can be busy at times, so walk on the right-hand side, facing oncoming traffic.
At the ‘T’ junction turn left on to a side road through Ambaston.
At the road end turn left past the last houses and follow a grassy field path over a series of fields and as far as the river.
Walk along the river bank until the path reaches the Borrowash road.
Climb up to the road and bear left along it for about 100 yards.
Drop down a side track on your right and regain the river bank.
The path here is part of the Derwent Valley Heritage Way running upstream to Bamford and the Derwent Dams. Across the river to your right is the British Celanese factory.
Where the path forks beside a weir, turn left on to a field track dog-legging for over a quarter of a mile until it reaches the western access drive into Elvaston Park. Turn left and follow the drive up to the castle.
Go to your left around the castle and then half-right to walk down grassy terraces to the wooded lake-side track. Follow this to the right, back to the Country Park car park, which is to your right through the trees.
You will pass more tufa structures; one of them makes a perfect arch, framing a view of the lake. Other features seen from this section of the walk are an ornamental pumping station worked by a now abandoned water wheel, and a fine Cedar of Lebanon tree.
5½ miles (9km) of level parkland, back roads, riverside and country park walking.
Muddy sections after rain beyond Ambaston village.
Recommended map: Ordnance Survey Explorer, 1:25,000 scale Sheet 259 (Derby).
Public transport: Skylink (Leicester direction), from Derby.
Refreshments. Café in castle kitchen. Pub, the Harrington Arms Thulston is passed on the walk.
Car parking near entrance to Elvaston Country Park, via Borrowash/Elvaston road.